A few weeks ago in this column, I spoke about my personal connection and appreciation to the Hebrew language. This week, I’d like to discuss language in a broader sense. Language has been on my mind lately—I’m taking the Spanish AP test in a few weeks, and I’m going to be spending a year in Israel, so my Hebrew had better be up to par. But sometimes I’ve wondered: What if there were only one language, if everyone in the world was monolingual? In other words, what if the idea of different languages didn’t exist and if all of mankind spoke one language?
Before discussing what would be different without different languages, it is worth looking at the Torah’s mention of a world with only one language. Bereishit Chapter 11 tells the story of the Tower of Bavel, in a time when “the whole earth was of one language and of one speech” (Bereishit 11:1; Mechon-Mamre translation). They all understand each other and all work together in harmony, trying to build a massive tower so that they will not be “scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (11:4). Without going into the Midrashic interpretations of their goal right now, God decides to “confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech” (11:7) and scatters the people all around the world. In other words, from this perspective it appears that while there is an element of unity that comes from everyone speaking the same language, it overall is better that people spread all around the world and speak different languages. Why might this be?
There would indeed be some positive consequences if the idea of different languages didn’t exist. Everyone in the whole world would understand each other, without any need for translators or lexicons. While nowadays translation is easy because of online services and a globalized culture, in the past, translation was a major feat and very significant—without machines to help them, people had to master languages in order to successfully translate works. But what if there had been no need for any translators, if people could’ve understood each other right off the bat? People could have traveled the world without any fear of a language barrier, and different cultures would have been able to mingle with each other and exchange ideas without any impediment. It’s quite possible that negative constructs such as racism would not have been born if people had all been able to understand each other and thus sympathize with each other. On a more practical level, it would make it far easier for people like myself to get around foreign countries. In Israel, for instance, I wouldn’t have to worry about trying to follow rapid-fire Hebrew while listening for my bus stop!
On the other hand, if there were only one language, then there would also be much that would be lost when it comes to the nuance of languages and culture themselves. For example, in Spanish, one pronoun form that is commonly used is the “usted” form. “Usted” means “you”—it is a form of second-person—but carries a formal, respectful connotation. One uses “usted” when addressing a superior or an elder; for others, he just uses the informal “tu.” In other words, Spanish has two ways of saying “you” but each with very different connotations. However, a nuance like this is mainly unique only in comparison with other languages. It is beautiful that Spanish contains a formal and informal form of “you,” because English and many other languages do not—but what if Spanish were the world’s only language? It could still have the two different forms of “you,” but it wouldn’t make the language distinct; it would just be the norm, which makes the language lose much of its luster.
Moreover, many cultures place much of their self-identity in their languages. Even if its people now speak English, the most “global” language, they still also want to speak their own language because it connects them to their roots. For the Jewish people, for instance, Hebrew (the language of the Tanach) and Yiddish (a mixture of Hebrew and languages from Europe) connect people to their roots. It serves as a cultural reminder of the texts and ancestors that the religion is based upon. If there had been one global language from the beginning, however, then that sort of powerful cultural connection would be lost. People would not be able to look back at their nation’s past through their language, because they would never find anything distinct—since everyone would have had the same language, no unique history or culture could be discerned from it.
Thus, overall I would argue that it’s good that the world has many languages. Sure, it would be nice if everyone could understand each other and if language barriers didn’t exist. But the fact that there are many different languages makes for a much richer world. (Plus, in Israel, I’ll be able to finally feel like the out-of-place foreigner I’ve always dreamed of being! Well, maybe that’s not quite the best thing, but it should be an interesting experience…)
By Oren Oppenheim
Is Oren Oppenheim’s column secretly a collection of all of his college essays? Email him at orenop[email protected] to find out (or to ask/discuss anything else).